x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A ceasefire but still no solution to Yemen's disunity

If it holds, the ceasefire would not only assuage a potential flash point of regional rivalries, but give Mr Saleh much-needed breathing room to deal with other challenges to his authority.

The conflict in northern Yemen has been notable for the fragility of its so-called ceasefires, which have sometimes lasted mere hours. The difference now may be that the government of the president Ali Abdullah Saleh has agreed to a truce after the al Houthi rebels offered their own ceasefire two weeks ago. Government forces have kept to the peace even after four soldiers were killed and the interior minister was attacked in the northern city of Saada on Friday.

There clearly have been protracted negotiations behind the scenes that have paralleled the pounding government forces have given the Houthis in recent months. The key difference with the truce initially offered by the rebels is the stipulation that they will not attack Saudi soil, in addition to pledges to open the roads, disarm and release all prisoners. The Houthi rebellion that was renewed six years ago has sparked particular concern in recent months because of its implications for regional stability. Saudi Arabia openly attacked the rebels last November, after it said its territory had been violated. Even more worrying are allegations that Iran is backing the Shiite Houthis. Such meddling would threaten not only Yemen but the region more broadly.

If it holds, the ceasefire would not only assuage a potential flash point of regional rivalries, but give Mr Saleh much-needed breathing room to deal with other challenges to his authority. Tribal leaders have openly attacked government soldiers, most recently during an assault on al Qa'eda members under local protection. And the long-simmering secessionist movement in formerly independent South Yemen, the cause of the 1990s civil war, remains the most serious threat to national unity.

Mr Saleh's record of patronage as politics and playing one side off against the other is disheartening. As the federal government's grip weakens outside of Sana'a, the military remains the government's ace in the hole. But if peace in the north merely enables Mr Saleh to open another front in the south, the opportunity will have been wasted. There are more battles ahead, particularly as al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula uses the country as a base to launch attacks. More important for the country is rebuilding some basis for common identity. Yemen faces a looming crisis in the agricultural sector because of a water shortage, a proliferation of separatist movements and a lack of federal power. The Houthi rebellion, which called for more economic and cultural rights for the Zaydi minority, has lessons about the consequences of the capital's failure to share power.

The international community, and specifically Yemen's neighbours on the Arabian Peninsula, must take an interest in the country's security because it affects their own. There is much the Gulf states could do to help to rebuild the country's economy and political stability. But aid must be directed towards development goals that are larger than any one leader.